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Creativity coach, writing and creative process instructor, speaker, author of Around the Writer's Block: Using Brain Science to Write the Way You Want (Penguin/Tarcher 2012) and Dancing in the Dragon's Den (Red Wheel Weiser), Teaching Artist at the Loft Literary Center.

How Far Should Readers Trust You?


Can your readers trust you? Can you trust me?

I’d like to think that whatever degree of trust you give me is warranted, that my research on the brain and creativity is rigorous and my suggestions for using that information to get around resistance is helpful and valid.

Rarely does neuroscientific research apply directly to writing, however. To interpret what the findings might mean for writers, I extrapolate and make assumptions. I am an educated, intelligent and enthusiastic reader, but I am not a neuroscience expert. Despite my best efforts, I may have misinterpreted or misrepresented facts.

I may not be as trustworthy as I’d like to be. You may trust me more than you should. Your readers may trust you more than they should. Some of the misplaced trust is due to writers’ lazy brains (mine and yours). And some is due to readers’ lazy brains.

How We Fail Our Readers and Ourselves

Stanford University psychologist Sam Wineburg and his team are exploring why nearly all of us are such poor judges of what to trust on the Internet and what we might to do improve.

I encourage you to read the entire article I found this information in, “The Real Fake News Crisis” by Katy Steinmetz (Time, August 20, 2018). Until you find a copy, I’ll share key points from Wineburg’s and other studies:

  • no matter what our age, education level or expertise with digital tech, Americans fail to ask important questions about content when we browse
  • on average, we believe fake news at least 20% of the time (this includes everyone, not just the “other side” of the political divide)
  • we retweet links without reading them
  • we rely too much on search engines and make erroneous assumptions about how they work
  • 23% of respondents to a Pew poll “said they had shared a make-up news story” and 14% did so knowing the story was false.

If you use the Internet in your research, some of what you believe is true, isn’t. What you write based on that misinformation will be flawed.

Why We Fail, aka Brain Heuristics

Most writers don’t fail to be trustworthy because we don’t care or because we intend to deceive. We consume, pass on and expand misinformation because our brains depend on shortcuts.

Running a human brain is expensive. Your brain makes up roughly 3% of your body’s mass, but it uses 20 – 30% or more of your body’s supply of oxygen and glucose.

To make such a big brain evolutionarily viable, humans evolved the first energy efficiency measures: cognitive shortcuts psychologists call “heuristics.” (My first sources on heuristics were Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman and On Second Thought: Outsmarting Your Mind’s Hard Wired Habits by Wray Herbert.)

Most of the time the shortcuts serve us. We really don’t need to scrutinize the ingredients of mayonnaise or toothpaste we’ve used for years or pay the same kind of attention to driving home as we do when driving on an unfamiliar six lane freeway.

The best part about heuristics is that we use them without having to think about it. The worst about heuristics is that we usethem without thinking about it. Remember, according to neurologists like David Eagleman, at least 95% of what goes on in your brain is beyond or below the level of conscious awareness.

As it says on the book jacket of Herbert’s Second Thought:

Yet these hard-wired shortcuts, mental wonders though they may be, can also be perilous. They can distort our thinking in ways that are often invisible to us, leading us to make poor decisions, to be easy targets for manipulators…and they can even cost us our lives.”

The Familiarity and Frequency Heuristics

Our efficient brains do as little as possible with routine stuff. We assume familiar things are safe and frequent messages are true.

The more familiar I am to you, the more you will trust me, even when I’m wrong. (And the more familiar you are to your readers, the more they trust you, even when you’re wrong.) The longer you’ve read this blog, the more often you’ve heard or seen references to this blog, my name or my book, the more likely you are to fall into the Familiarity and Frequency Heuristics when you read what I post.

Writers who are not familiar with me and my writing are more likely to question my sources and interpretations and to ask the questions we should all ask whenever we’re online:

  • Is this really true?
  • How do I know it’s true?
  • How would I know if it’s false or misleading?

If you read my book, you probably trust me more and rightly so. My book is published by a respected publisher (Penguin/Random House). For centuries publishers have edited and fact-checked what they printed.

The assumption that we can trust books, magazines and newspapers from familiar and reliable publishers makes sense in the physical world, where writing is curated by experts and where it’s easy to identify hack-publishers we don’t trust. It is remarkably naive to bring this assumption to the Internet where anyone can “publish” anything. So why we do make that irrational and naïve mistake?

Steinmetz points out:

“Newspapers used to physically separate hard news and commentary, so our minds could easily grasp what was what. But today two-thirds of Americans get news from social media, where posts from publishers get the same packaging as birthday greetings and rants. Content that warrants an emotional response is mixed with things that require deeper consideration. ‘It all looks identical,’ says Harvard research Claire Wardle, ‘so our brain has to work harder to make sense of those different types of information.’”

Our brains don’t like to work harder. But we owe it our readers to be aware of how we are influenced by our brains’ heuristics. We have an obligation to challenge ourselves to be careful, critical curators of the information we use and to write carefully and analytically even when we write for emotional impact.

First Decision Heuristic

Because second-guessing ourselves often wastes time and energy, humans evolved the tendency to stick a decision once we make it. This heuristic can hold sway even in the face of mounting evidence that the decision is faulty.

When we feel rushed, urgent or overwhelmed, we respond from our limbic system to make fast decisions based on habits and previous experience. Snap judgments make complete sense when we’re facing a familiar or physical threat, but not when we face unique challenges or need time to think through a complex issue.

The very nature of the internet, social media and the news overwhelm us and create a false sense that everything is urgent and negative.

The danger of the First Decision heuristic is intensified by confirmation bias, our tendency to inflate the credibility of information that confirm what we already believe and to dismiss out of hand what doesn’t.

What Can We Do to Counter Misinformation

According to Professor David Rand (quoted by Steinmetz):

“You just have to stop and think. All of the data we have collected suggestions that’s the real problem. It’s not that people are being super-biased and using their reasoning ability to trick themselves into believing crazy stuff. It’s just that people aren’t stopping. They’re rolling on.”

What can we do as writers to increase our own trustworthiness and make a small dent in the massive problem of misinformation? I’ll share my ideas in an upcoming post. Please share yours now in a comment and we’ll make that post a conversation.

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5 Comments on “How Far Should Readers Trust You?”

  1. EC Sheedy October 1, 2018 at 6:41 pm #

    Much to think about here. Thank you.

    As a reader and writer, I’m finding it harder and harder to effectively screen and evaluate the flotilla of information coming my way every day. Professor David Rand is right about “stopping and thinking” but, sadly, that’s often easier said that done during the pull of the never-ending prose.

    (Now, off to read Margaret Sullivan because a person unknown to me personally, kperrymn, has recommended an article I believe I will find informative. Now, how does that fit this blog’s intention? :-))

    Like

    • rosannebane October 10, 2018 at 10:43 am #

      EC, the flotilla of information is the major part of the problem. I think I know what you mean by the “pull of the never-ending prose” but I’d like to hear just a little more from your perspective.

      My persepctive is that we have to urge to do something and sometimes resending or responding immediately gives us a (false) sense of accomplishment, when all we’ve done is multiplied the problem… I suspect part of the solution will be accepting our limitations and choosing to process less of the information flood, read more carefully what we do read and writing more carefully what we do write.

      You highlight a critical issue: how do we screen and evaluate? I’ll attempt to address this in an upcoming post and again, I’d like to hear from you about what works for you and what you tried that didn’t work.

      Like

  2. kperrymn October 1, 2018 at 10:06 am #

    One thing we as writers can do is follow the advice of Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan. She wrote an article on surviving the news cycle, published in my local paper on Sept. 24, 2018: http://www.startribune.com/the-pace-of-the-news-a-user-s-guide-to-making-honest-sense-of-it-all/494186381/
    Her advice echoes Rosanne’s and includes things like reading articles before retweeting them, considering sources, etc. I think building habits as responsible readers can be a first step toward writing responsibly.

    Like

    • rosannebane October 10, 2018 at 10:33 am #

      Building Responsible Reading Habits — what a great concept, K! I could see you teaching a 4-hour Loft course on the topic and/or writing a guest post from you describing your reading habits…
      Thanks for the link to Margaret Sullivan; I’ll check that out.

      Like

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. How to Refresh and Reward Your Readers’ Trust | Bane of Your Resistance - November 1, 2018

    […] if you haven’t made any of the trust-damaging mistakes I mentioned in my previous post “How Far Should Readers Trust You?“, plenty of other writers have. Chances are, your readers have gotten […]

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